Shopping at your local supermarket once a week is convenient, but may not be the most cost-effective or efficient way of buying food.
There are alternative methods for getting fresh, high-quality, organic foods, often at significantly lower cost. And as you develop your own food buying strategies with like-minded friends, additional food buying, bartering, and sharing opportunities continue to arise.
This article focuses on whole foods that can be stored and fresh seasonal foods sourced locally. Canned foods which may be bought in case lots can also bring value for your food dollar, and the convenience of instant meals, but we feel organic whole foods offer more in terms of taste, nutrition and cost. Whole foods are foods in their natural state, as unprocessed and unrefined as possible. Whole foods typically don’t contain added ingredients such as sugar, salt and fat.
Cooking with natural whole foods takes longer than cooking with prepared foods. But there are less tangible, yet significant, benefits to `slow` food preparation. The process of preparing meals becomes a shared activity, the meals are more interesting when prepared by yourself and your family, and the quality of these meals offer better nutrition for the family. `Slow` meals also encourage the family to eat together and spend more time over the shared effort of a common meal.
Below Are Strategies for Sourcing High-Quality Foods at Comparatively Low Cost:
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It’s likely that you’ll employ several of the above methods to source fresh organic food at the lowest cost. In our family, for example, we buy dry whole foods through an informal food buying club and store these throughout the year. We trade some of our surplus garden and orchard harvest with neighbors for items we don’t grow ourselves. The produce manager at our nearest supermarket lets us know about special bulk buying opportunities, and our foodie friends keep us posted when they discover any great deals.
It takes some work to get your own ‘food network’ started, but once established, it enables you to provide quality food for your family which otherwise might be unaffordable.
Food Buying Clubs
A great way to save on the cost of food is to buy in bulk amounts directly from wholesalers, avoiding the retail markup of supermarkets. This applies to storage foods like rice, beans, oats, flour, wheat berries, dried fruit like raisins and prunes, nuts, oils, molasses, peanut butter and such. Fresh produce, however, would more likely be sourced in season from a backyard vegetable garden, farmer’s market, a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, see below) or the supermarket.
Whole foods are foods in their natural state, as unprocessed and unrefined as possible.
A single family would probably not need, or be able to store, the quantity of food required to meet the minimum order amount set by wholesalers, but a food buying club with enough members could. Run on a volunteer basis, clubs can range from a few to hundreds of members. The larger the membership the greater the purchasing power and savings. To start a club you could organize neighbors, friends, co-workers, or any people you already cooperate with, such as service clubs or church groups.
Basically, the club collects orders and full payment in advance from members, combines the orders and purchases the total quantity at wholesale prices. The supplier delivers the order to a drop-off point (or a member may have to pick up from the supplier and deliver to a distribution point), and the members unload the truck and divide the individual orders for members to pick up.
Some Practical Considerations for Those New to Food Clubs:
- Divide up the tasks, initially, based on the volunteer’s’ interests and capabilities.
- Be sure each member has a printed copy of their order, which they should bring on pick-up day.
- Rotate responsibilities so everyone learns the jobs and no one feels over burdened. The longevity of the group depends on sharing the tasks fairly.
- Communicate clearly, making a schedule so every member knows when orders must be submitted and when they will be delivered.
- The delivery location should be central to all members.
- Keep your group small at first, one recommendation being between 7 and 16 members. More can be added as the group’s experience increases.
Our family has benefitted from an informal neighborhood buying club for many years. We’ve been able to buy quality food at near wholesale rates, and in the process we build community with our friends. We also save by not having to make frequent trips to the supermarket since we have larger quantities of food stored in the pantry. Delivery day usually only takes a few hours of our time and is lots of fun, especially when the weather cooperates.
If you are considering starting a food buying club, our advice is to keep it small for your first order cycle. We began with only four or five members in our group, which made the process simpler. Each person purchased about $300 of food, which was enough when combined to get the wholesale rate from a supplier in the nearest city.
On pick-up day, it’s helpful to bring a few empty cardboard boxes which you or others may need when dividing up the food. And bring some duct tape to close up any rips that may develop when packing heavy paper sacks of grain or beans. You may also need a small tarp or several large plastic bags if conditions are wet, since many bulk whole food products come in paper sacks.
Buying food in bulk through a food buying coop is a great way to get quality whole foods at significant savings, but to realize the full value of this investment, the food must be stored properly. For advice on storing bulk foods in the home, read our article Food Storage Tips.
CSA's: Community Supported Agriculture
CSA’s have become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal produce directly from a farmer. Buying food through a CSA does not necessarily mean that the food costs will be lower than supermarket prices, and the choices will be more limited. However, members benefit by having access to local foods, knowing how their food is grown, and reducing the environmental costs associated with shipping foods over long distances.
The most common scenario is that a farmer offers a certain number of ‘shares’ of the upcoming season’s harvest to the public. Interested consumers purchase a share (sometimes called a subscription or membership) before the beginning of the growing season, usually in the $400 to $600 range, and in return receive a box of seasonal produce at set intervals throughout the season.
An important concept is that the shareholders share with the farmer the rewards and risks of farming. The weather, insect plagues, crop failures, and the farmer’s personal mishaps can affect production. This is part of the farming experience which the consumer must take into account before becoming a member. Also, because of the seasonal nature of farm-fresh foods, members will still need to buy produce from stores during the off-season.
Having Mentioned the Risks in This Shared Endeavor, Here Are Benefits Which CSA Members Enjoy:
- Eat very fresh local produce, with maximum flavor and nutrients.
- Be introduced to new vegetables and new ways of cooking them.
- Find that kids are more enthusiastic about food grown from “the family farm” than store-bought veggies.
- Develop friendships with other members. Besides the intrinsic value of friendship, there’s added value in being part of a ‘food network’. Buying opportunities can come up from outside the CSA which you can find out about from your foodie friends.
- Learn more about how food is grown, and how it connects us with the environment.
- Strengthen the local economy by supporting farm families in the community.
There are many variations of the CSA harvesting model, with members either harvesting their own produce or the farmer picking it and delivering to a convenient location. Although most CSA’s are confined to produce, some also offer eggs, homemade bread, meat, dairy, fruit and flowers. Farms in an area might partner to provide these extras.
There is often flexibility about what kind of produce the members prefer. Although the emphasis is on organic produce, there may be varying methods of cultivation. Many farms strive to be organic but do not have formal certification. Ask questions about the farm’s methods if that is important to you.
There is no official government list of CSA’s in the US, but Local Harvest, a Santa Cruz, California organization, keeps track of thousands of CSA’s around the country. If you want to join a CSA go to localharvest.org, click on CSA, type in your ZIP code to receive contact information for the farm closest to you. You might consider joining with interested friends and neighbors.
Prefer Not to Buy With a Group?
If you prefer not to be part of an organized group, you can still save money by buying bulk amounts of food from local retailers, especially those with which you regularly do business. The independent stores in our experience are often easier to negotiate with than large chain supermarkets, but most stores are willing to offer a series of discounts, scaled to the size of your order.
Most wholesale suppliers have online catalogues you can refer to. You can get a better idea of the kinds of food available to special order from your store, and what their wholesale price is, which helps you recognize a good price when offered by the retailer.
Our local natural foods store, for instance, will give a 10 – 15% discount on orders off the shelves totalling $100. They offer a bigger discount for large bags and containers of food, packaged as delivered by their supplier, and totalling more than $100.
Supermarkets commonly offer ‘case lot’ sales once or twice a year which is an opportunity to stock up on canned goods at price cuts of up to 40% of retail. Ask your local supermarket manager for a schedule of case lot sales, and which items will be included.
‘Gleaning’ is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or after the farmer no longer chooses to harvest. This produce would otherwise be ploughed under or left to rot, so some farmers give people permission to pick (glean) in the field for no charge. The fruits and vegetables might not be suitable for the commercial market, being flawed, the wrong size, color, or shape, yet are still nutritious and tasty.
In 1997, the USDA estimated that up to 1/5 of America’s crops are wasted, and that roughly 50 million people could have been fed on that food. Add to this the waste that occurs at consumer levels (groceries, restaurants and homes) and the percentage of wasted food could climb as high as 50% of production. There are many organizations that organize farmers and gleaners to claim these resources, some being Society of Saint Andrews, Potato and Produce Project, The Gleaning Network, and food banks/pantries.
In most towns there are farms and gardens with leftover produce, which the owners might be happy to share.
People with full time jobs or the elderly may appreciate a trade of your harvesting or garden labor in exchange for some of the produce. Folks who are on vacation would be happy to share their garden’s bounty if you agreed to water regularly or offer some basic garden maintenance.
If you notice trees loaded with ripe fruit, with lots on the ground, consider going to the door to ask permission to pick surplus fruit, or leave a note with your contact info. Most gardeners are loathe to waste their produce and like to share. This is certainly the case with our small orchard where ‘not-good-enough-to-store’ fruit often goes to waste.
Here Are Some Respectful Rules for Gleaning:
- Always respect private property by asking permission first. This is a good idea, even though it is legal to pick fruit that falls or hangs over the owner’s property line.
- Only take what you can use. However, the owner might be glad if you also offer to deliver some to the local food bank.
- If you bring children, keep them close to you and on their best behavior. Don’t bring pets.
- Be friendly and show appreciation.
- Ask the owners how they would like the produce picked. For example, tree fruit must be picked carefully to avoid breaking fruiting spurs and branches.
Gleaning is an exercise in resourcefulness, with experienced gleaners finding value often overlooked by others. For example, flawed windfall apples lying on the orchard ground may look unappealing but be perfectly suited for making your own juice or apple sauce. And gleaning goes beyond the farm: if you visit any farmer’s market at the close of day, unsold produce is often free for the taking.
Food gathered by gleaning is usually fresh, and to make best advantage of the free bounty, the gleaner should be prepared to process these foods quickly to avoid spoilage. For a good reference for preparing and storing freshly harvested foods, read Putting Food By.
Sharing a Garden
Fresh produce, seasonal foods, and some winter storage fruits and vegetables can be sourced through garden-sharing arrangements. Garden-sharing can be a casual arrangement between friends and neighbors, or a more structured program managed by a community, university, church or service group. The basic formula is common to all: participants contribute what they can, whether it’s land or labor, money, or skill, and everyone shares in the bounty.
Many communities are studying the big issue of food sustainability and brainstorming all possibilities. Connecting gardeners and landholders within a community strengthens relationships and creates food security. Here are some ways people can share gardens for mutual benefit:
Offer Extra Yard Space to a Nearby Gardener in Trade for Some of the Harvest
In residential communities, water-thirsty lawns are being turned over to create home vegetable gardens and ‘edible landscapes’. Neighbors can share their unused space with nearby gardeners who could use more space to plant, in exchange for a portion of the harvest. Elderly property owners unable to keep up their gardens and lawns would welcome new energy in exchange for some of the vegetables. If a landholder has enough space, perhaps a service group could have an informal community garden for the season.
Help Maintain a Neighbor's Garden in Exchange for Some Growing Space
Homes with small or mid-sized backyard vegetable gardens offer opportunities for garden sharing. You may be able to use an available bed in a neighbor’s garden for an intensive vegetable garden in exchange for helping with garden maintenance, or watering when the owners are away.
Share the Cost of a Neighbor's Garden in Exchange for Part of the Harvest
If you have a neighbor with a garden, you can offer to buy the seeds or help with the cost of fertilizers and soil amendments in exchange for a portion of the harvest.
Swap Harvests with Other Gardeners
Most gardeners have a crop which does particularly well in their garden, due to soil conditions, exposure, or growing methods. If you have a vegetable garden, you can set aside an area for a larger planting of a crop which does well in your garden, and swap this with another gardener in exchange for a portion of the ‘trophy’ crop. In our garden, for example, we have excess fruit which we give to a neighbor who has success growing carrots and onions. This makes it easier for us to focus on growing fewer crops, with better results.
Many communities have set aside areas where people can rent, at low cost, small plots within a community garden to grow vegetables. These arrangements offer people a chance to grow some seasonal produce, and to learn about gardening. Since many gardeners are working alongside each other in nearby plots, expert advice is readily available, making community gardens a great place for novice gardeners to learn the basics.
Community gardens are wonderful local resources, but when you consider the various costs involved, they do not necessarily result in getting produce at lower cost than supermarkets or farmer’s markets. Of course, there are other benefits beyond cost to consider. Unfortunately, many community gardens have a shortage of available space, resulting in long waiting lists.
Tips for Garden Sharing
The success of garden sharing depends on clear communication, respectful interactions, and well defined boundaries and expectations. It can be a temporary arrangement for the growing season or could continue for years if the chemistry is right. First, have a conversation to see if you have similar goals. If that goes well, meet the interested person to discuss skills, background, expectations. The process is similar to how people find roommates or tenants. You need to know if you can share and cooperate with this person over a period of months.
If you both agree to proceed, visit the garden space to assess its possibilities. The gardener may decide that the space isn’t right, maybe it’s too near a busy street or doesn’t have enough sun. But if you both feel good about a potential arrangement, it’s wise to sit down and make a garden sharing agreement which would include these considerations:
- Time schedules for when the garden would be available
- Tools available, and storage for them and other supplies
- Water availability, and responsibilities for irrigation
- Gardening methods, such as organic or chemical-based fertilizing and pest control
- Soil amendments that partners agree on, and division of those expense
- Seeds and transplants expenses, and what is to be grown
- Harvest division outlining how you’ll divide up produce come harvest time
- Security and privacy concerns, such as who, besides the garden partner, may enter the garden and what spaces can be accessed